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Moms for Liberty among conservative groups named 'extremist' by civil rights watchdog

Tiffany Justice, co-founder of Moms for Liberty, in Vero Beach, Fla., on May 5. The Southern Poverty Law Center has added the group to its list of antigovernment extremist entities.
Bloomberg via Getty Images
Tiffany Justice, co-founder of Moms for Liberty, in Vero Beach, Fla., on May 5. The Southern Poverty Law Center has added the group to its list of antigovernment extremist entities.

More than two years into a conservative push against teaching about Black history, literature and gender identity in public schools, the Southern Poverty Law Center has concluded that a dozen so-called "parental rights" groups behind the movement are extremist.

The civil rights organization particularly focuses on the largest of these, the nonprofit Moms for Liberty, in its annual Year in Hate & Extremism report for 2022, saying that it advances an anti-student inclusion agenda.

The SPLC has put it and similar organizations on its list of anti-government extremist entities, drawing comparisons between them and parent groups that attempted to re-segregate public schools during the civil rights movement.

"They really are seeking to undermine public education holistically and to divide communities," said Rachel Carroll Rivas, deputy director for research, reporting and analysis at the SPLC. Carroll Rivas said her organization has received numerous calls from parents and educators who are concerned about the sudden appearance and tactics of Moms for Liberty activists in their schools.

Moms for Liberty, founded in early 2021 by conservative women in Florida, has quickly expanded its presence across the country. It has landed national media attention for its efforts — sometimes successful — to fight COVID safety measures in schools, ban books, limit discussion about race and LGBTQ identities and populate local school boards with conservatives. Two of its co-founders, Tina Descovich and Tiffany Justice, provided NPR with a written statement in lieu of an interview to respond to the SPLC designation.

"Two-thirds of Americans think the public education system is on the wrong track today. That is why our organization is devoted to empowering parents to be a part of their child's public school education," the statement read.

Recent NPR/Ipsos polling finds, however, that most Americans, including nearly half of Republicans, oppose banning certain books in schools — a central campaign for Moms for Liberty.

Referring to the SPLC, Descovich and Justice further state: "We believe that parental rights do not stop at the classroom door and no amount of hate from groups like this is going to stop that."

But Carroll Rivas said she believes the the "parental rights" banner that Moms for Liberty flies does not extend to all parents.

"We're thinking about the kinds of parents — parents of LGBTQ students, parents of Black students who want to hear the full story of the history of the U.S., parents of all kinds — who just want to make sure that their kids are getting treated fairly and equitably and that they have a really good, thriving education," she said.

The SPLC compares the group to pro-segregationist parent groups

The SPLC report compares Moms for Liberty and similar organizations of today to pro-segregationist parent groups that flourished in the wake of the 1954 Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education. That decision forced schools across the U.S. to integrate, but it also gave fire to a movement to undermine public education. The report names, as examples, the Mothers' League of Central High School and the "Cheerleaders" of New Orleans, which were established to resist inclusiveness at schools during that earlier era.

"That was hateful then, and it's hateful now," said Shannon Hiller, executive director of the Bridging Divides Initiative (BDI) at Princeton University.

Hiller said BDI, a nonpartisan research organization that tracks political violence, has had Moms for Liberty on its radar.

"What we've been watching really closely around this particular group... [are] times when they show up with other groups that have explicitly advocated or committed intimidations and violence," Hiller said. "There are cases at school boards in North Carolina, for example, where Moms for Liberty showed up together with Proud Boys and were part of intimidating the school board." Carroll Rivas echoed this observation.

"Their organizing is quite concerning for how it harms communities, but also because of the associations with other hard right groups that they've really had since their inception," she said.

Some members of Moms for Liberty chapters have also been accused-- and in at least one case, convicted — of harassment.

Carroll Rivas said she hopes that adding Moms for Liberty and similar groups to its extremist list will help inform communities, reporters and politicians who are just learning about them. And, perhaps, that it might tarnish association with those organizations. But in a time of deepening polarization in American politics, she acknowledges that it may not.

Later this month, in Philadelphia, Moms for Liberty will hold its annual conference. And in a sign of its growing political clout, among its slated speakers are three leading candidates for the Republican presidential nomination: former President Donald Trump, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Odette Yousef
Odette Yousef is a National Security correspondent focusing on extremism.